Ecuador: The Hidden Paradise Where A Couple Can Live Comfortably On $2,000 a Month or Less
Sell your winter clothes...and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime in the Land of Eternal Spring. Every cliché you've heard about living large on little...on even a retiree's budget...is true in Ecuador.
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- Population: 15,439,429
- Capital City: Quito
- Climate: Tropical along coast, becoming cooler inland at higher elevations; tropical in Amazonian jungle lowlands
- Time Zone: GMT-5
- Language: Spanish (official), Amerindian languages (especially Quechua)
- Country Code: 593
- Coastline: 2,237 km
My stomach is happily full after a delicious rice dish stuffed full of clams and chopped vegetables. As I sit sipping the last of my fresh lemonade under the umbrella-shaded outdoor table, a cool breeze whispers past. Families amble by, politely wishing me “buen provecho” (“enjoy your meal”) while kayakers across the street load their gear into a shiny new pickup. All the while wild birds mingle their notes with the Latin rhythms spilling from the restaurant. Where am I? I’m in the Ecuadorean jungle town of Tena…and to be honest this is not at all how I had imagined the Amazon to be.
Like so many baby boomers, Suzy Giles felt she was destined to continue working full-time in the U.S. She wasn’t working a bad gig—conducting wine tours in Napa Valley, California—but it didn’t leave much time to pursue her passion for painting. So she began to explore her options overseas for a location affordable enough to allow her to retire…and discovered Cuenca, Ecuador. After visiting the colonial city twice, Suzy took the leap. That was almost two years ago and the decision has proven to be a good one. “I wanted an adventure,” says Suzy. “I needed to stay out of life’s ruts and to get out of my comfort zone.”
Could there be a more perfect country for ecotourism than Ecuador? With four distinct regions in an area the size of Colorado, Ecuador offers endless possibilities for adventure travel. You’ll find the Galapagos, Pacific coast, Andean highlands, and the Amazon… Ecuador is, per square mile, the most biodiverse country on the planet and numerous expats have moved there to become part of the ecotourism industry. Back in the 1980s, Richard Parsons was based in Quito and one day, while enjoying a leisurely drive through the Tandayapa Valley, he and his wife Gloria stopped and struck up a random conversation with a man cutting up a tree.
In their 30 years of marriage, John and Vickie Kendall had often talked of living abroad. But their work as nurses in the Pacific Northwest kept them occupied and tied to the U.S. They began formulating a plan to retire and then move overseas in the summer of 2013. “We had been to Thailand and were looking at that as a possibility. And we were looking at Panama, Uruguay, and then Ecuador came up, so we were considering all different places,” says John. “But when we got down to it, we realized we wanted to be in the Western Hemisphere so that we weren’t too far away from home.”
If you’re planning a trip to Ecuador, my advice is simple: Bring the biggest suitcase you can find…two if your airline will allow it. Get on the Andean Craft Trail in the Sierra region along the Avenue of the Volcanoes that cuts north to south through Ecuador. It is full of artisan treasures that you won’t be able to resist. Cotacachi, the village where I live, has a main street lined with leather shops selling jackets, boots, and shoes as well as beautiful handbags and luggage. You can even have things custom-made in a few days. And everything is so much cheaper than you would pay for it in a high-end store—either in the U.S. or in Ecuador. You’ll adore Cotacachi.
Michelle Klein and her husband, Gary Garces, live in the idyllic environment of a small Ecuadorian community. They awake to the call of wild birds and the scent of orchids on the breeze…a quick walk to the mom-and-pop store on the corner rewards them with fresh bread rolls for breakfast from the friendly proprietors…and access to the many rivers that roll through town is just a quick car ride or a leisurely stroll away. They run the Casa Blanca jungle hostel in Tena where they are raising three daughters.
There’s a small city in Ecuador that you might never have heard of. But if you’re looking for a retirement destination, it’s got a lot to offer. Called Ibarra, it’s Ecuador’s northernmost mountain city. You’re not alone if it’s unfamiliar to you. Though I, and several hundred other expats, live just 30 minutes away in the small town of Cotacachi, Ibarra gets too little attention considering how attractive it is as an expat destination. Why doesn’t it get the recognition it deserves, you ask? Well, it’s partly because Ibarra lost much of its original colonial architecture to an earthquake over 100 years ago. Not that you’d notice much—the buildings that replaced the wrecked ones are a pretty good replica of colonial style.
I’ve mentioned before how Ecuador made me a huge fan of mountain living. But it’s more than just the mountains that did it for me. After all, there are mountains running the entire length of the Americas, from the far north of Alaska and Canada to the very tip of South America. Almost any mountain range you choose in North, Central, or South America is in some way majestic and breathtakingly beautiful. But—and this is the crucial thing that makes Ecuador’s mountains different for me—none of these mountains are directly on the equator. In nearly every other mountain location in the Americas, seasonal changes make living up at a high altitude a part-time thing, at least for a guy who dislikes snow and cold as much as I do.
Every morning, my husband, Mark, and I wake up to a view of Cuenca’s Old-World charm…majestic cathedral spires rising before us. Then we take our morning walk along the Yununcay River where cultured gardens line the bike and walking trails. Ecuador reminds me of Italy. We spent time in Europe as a young couple and planned to retire to Italy…until we discovered Ecuador. We fell in love with the cobblestone streets, terracotta-roofed brick buildings, colonial churches, plazas, outdoor cafés, and wrought-iron balconies draped in bougainvillea. Mark and I retired to Cuenca, Ecuador, four years ago on a pensioner’s visa which we live on. Our monthly budget is $1,317 a month—my husband’s pension from UPS—but we earn that much or more on our new incomes.
I’m often asked about life in Ecuador and what it might be like to live or retire here. And I’m not shy about sharing my opinion on that topic. I’ve lived in Ecuador off and on for 13 years now. We spent a year in Quito beginning in 2001 and returned here in 2008. So yes, I think Ecuador is one of the best places on the planet to live.The people are wonderful. For the most part, they love foreigners and will go out of their way to help us discover how to fit into their culture and life here. (And they do it all with a warm smile.) The weather is superb. I’m from Nebraska so I am used to frigid temperatures in the winter and steamy hot summers. Here in the Andes Mountains where I live, temperatures hover around 75 F every single day of the year. I don’t need heat or air conditioning, keeping my monthly utility bill at about $24 every month total.
Ten years ago while stationed as a volunteer nurse in Archidona, a small community not far from Tena in Ecuador’s jungled east, Michelle Klein found the accommodations to be lacking. “I rented a room for $50 a month. But there were up to nine people at times competing for the bathroom, the shower didn’t have hot water, and the windows didn’t have screens. It was dark. And there really wasn’t any other good place to stay,” she says. It was easy to spot the gap in the market.
Punta Blanca is a beautiful, exclusive area on Ecuador’s southern Pacific coast. Only about a four-hour drive from colonial Cuenca, where I live, Punta Blanca has a super-convenient location 30 minutes north of Salinas, the country’s most developed resort area, and 30 minutes south of the always happening party town of Montanita. Because Punta Blanca is residential, you need a vehicle to get there and to get around, as there are no stores or restaurants within walking distance. Rentals are available, and visitors are treated to a gorgeous and isolated beachfront experience with lots of activities and amenities nearby.
2008 was a very tough year for my wife and me. At the time, we were living the good life in Las Vegas—big home, high-paying jobs, investments that were propelling us toward our retirement goals. Then what I refer to as the “Economic Tsunami” hit, and we were among the many casualties of that global financial meltdown. When we both found ourselves downsized, we naively thought, “No problem. With our skillsets we’ll have no trouble finding another great job.”
While most people in Canada are bundling up against the cold right now…and preparing for or enduring heavy snowfall and treacherous ice…Canadians Brian and Janette Sullivan are enjoying the temperate, weather of Cotacachi, Ecuador. A little village located between two volcanoes in the Andes, Cotacachi has such a moderate climate that it enjoys year-round average daily temperatures of 70 F and 50 F at night. That’s just one of the ways that life is easier in Cotacachi…and Janette and Brian are taking advantage of all it has to offer.
Bill Schuler spent a good 20 years working as a tech consultant in and around Minnesota’s twin cities. After devoting much of his life to his career and dealing with frigid Midwestern winters, Bill decided it was time for a change. In July 2012 he left his U.S. home and planted his feet in Ecuador. “I love mountains and was looking for that type of environment, and I was getting pretty tired of the cold winters,” says Bill. These days he doesn’t need a snow shovel, and his life of retirement in the northern Andes gives him just what he was looking for. He has daily views of majestic volcanoes, with a rocky river running through the gully below his house. Snow is nowhere to be found.
Ecuador offers sophisticated historical cities…miles of unspoiled, sun-kissed beaches…fertile farmland…and temperate mountain hideaways…and all of it for pennies on the dollar. You can live well for a fraction of the cost of living back in the U.S. And with Ecuador’s official currency the U.S. dollar, you needn’t worry about currency calculations or exchange risks. And real estate costs? They’re among the lowest we’ve found anywhere in the world.
A view, good-value real estate, low cost of living, friendly locals…they’re all important as you search for a new community to settle in abroad. But if you have a green thumb, you may have some special requirements for your dream home. You’ll need good soil and the right light. Maybe you want multiple growing seasons, which is possible in some tropical areas.
I’ve just returned to Ecuador from a two week spell in the U.S. and I’m still processing the experience. It was fabulous to see family again and connect with co-workers, but my time there was not quite as I expected. This was my first time back in three years and prior to my trip I kept thinking to myself that I was “going home.” But as it turns out I wasn’t as at home back in my mother country as I had imagined.
Better weather and a low cost of living makes Ecuador a great option for retirement, and recent improvements to the immigration process now makes it even easier to gain residence in Ecuador. Ecuadorian lawyer Santiago Andrade says: “President Correa’s administration has improved many of the bureaucratic processes, and business and immigration is not the exemption to this change. I have seen an improvement in the timing of the residence visa process. In the past a visa took around 30 to 45 days to be approved; now it takes two to three weeks.”
Although my wife and I have spent 13 weeks of 2013 in Ecuador, and this Sunday celebrated our tenth month as full-time residents of the beachfront town of Salinas, we still from time to time experience “pinch me” moments where we can’t believe this is our life. Take, for example, last evening when we took a stroll down the brick walkway along the beach. It was about 6 p.m., so the sun was not quite down yet and there was a red glow to the western skies. Although it is November and back on the eastern seaboard in the States it was windy and cold, here in Salinas it was just under 74 F with a cool ocean breeze.
Before my wife, Cynthia, and I relocated to Cuenca, Ecuador from the U.S, we made an exploratory trip. Even though only a few years previously, we had never even heard of Cuenca, we were pleasantly surprised by what we found. The city more than lived up to its UNESCO World Heritage designation with carefully preserved colonial architecture throughout the historic district. Plus while there we were thrilled to attend a free outdoor symphony concert. That’s right—free!
Ecuador offers the world’s best climate choices in its four distinct regions, from Amazonian rainforests in the east (El Oriente) to warm coastal lowlands (La Costa) in the west and the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles offshore. The Andes Mountains cut right down the middle of the country from north to south, and in this La Sierra region you’ll find the temperate weather patterns that give Ecuador its status as the “Land of Eternal Spring.”
Expats have flocked to Cuenca, Ecuador in recent years for its great weather, low cost of living, and excellent health care. But most people aren’t aware until they arrive here that my hometown boasts five universities. And because Cuencanos speak what is recognized as the purest Spanish outside of Spain, we also have many Spanish language schools attracting study abroad students from all over the world. Great university towns are known as cultural hubs and artistic centers with a fun, vibrant atmosphere, and Cuenca is no exception. No, you won’t find wild tailgating parties happening during the fall—they play that “other kind” of football here.
With good, fresh food, more exercise, and clean air, expats say they live a healthier lifestyle overseas and it’s easy to do so. Americans Denver Gray and his wife Ann moved to the beach town of Salinas, Ecuador in March of 2013. “After we bought our condo, we came to Salinas for five weeks to set things up,” says Gray. “Some interesting things happened during those five weeks. Without any deliberate attempts to change our diet or lifestyle, my wife and I each lost 10 pounds.”
The colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador, draws vacationers from all over the world…and it has a tendency to turn visitors into permanent residents. That’s what happened to me four years ago. My three-month visit turned into a six-month stay…Then a year passed and I still hadn’t left. Cuenca has become home. I’ve been to some great places in the world and have loved them—places like Spain, Italy, or even Argentina. So why do I stay in Cuenca when there are so many other great places I could be living? Well, there are three big reasons I keep staying (and staying and staying).
Like many other folks thinking about moving abroad, my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I thought we knew what we wanted. A tropical beach, of course. During our lives we’d spent incredible days of vacation swinging in hammocks on palm-studded beaches, basking in the sun, and listening to the waves breaking out on some reef.
“How much does it cost to live in Ecuador?” That’s a question I hear a lot from readers. From masses of anecdotal evidence and my own experience of living here, I can safely say that a typical couple will most likely spend somewhere between $1,600 and $2,400 a month to live in Ecuador. But what you will spend depends very much on your own needs and wants.
There are many reasons why people choose to move from the U.S. to sunnier climes abroad. Often, it’s for health reasons…sometimes for pure economic necessity—stretching retirement dollars as far as possible. But my wife Ann and I are fortunate enough that we are here in Salinas, Ecuador just because we want to be. We met in 2009…and quickly knew we wanted a new adventure overseas. Both widowed and with our adult children all married and raising their own children we figured life is precious; why not try to do something a little different?
Cuenca is Ecuador’s most popular retirement haven, but it’s not the only one you’ll find in the Andean country. Thousands of expats have chosen from locations all over the country…Pacific coast beach towns, vibrant culture-filled cities, highland farm towns, and more. Ecuador harbors huge variety and whether you’re in search of adventure, planning to start a business, or just want to relax and watch the world go by, it’s got something to offer you.
In Ecuador, you’ll not only be in the middle of the world, but you could be on top of it. That’s because thanks to its location on the equatorial “bulge,” the peak of the country’s 20,564-foot Mt. Chimborazo is the point on the Earth’s surface that’s the farthest from the Earth’s core and closest to the sun. There truly is something for everyone here. Mountains, beaches, rainforests, cities, and small towns…all with a price tag nearly anyone can afford. By the way, Ecuador’s currency is the U.S. dollar—no currency conversions necessary.
No matter how affordable the destinations we talk about are, the simple fact is: You can’t live anywhere for free… But what if you had an income that went with you? An income that could give you the freedom you need to just pick up and go? You could spend half the year in your own cottage on the beach…work in the mornings and snorkel and relax in the afternoons.
My wife and I have been living in Salinas on the Pacific shores of Ecuador for just over six months now. We feel fortunate. We both love it here, and every week that passes we feel more relaxed, and more like we belong. Your own experience with life overseas will vary based on where you came from and where you go; whether you have traveled before; how old you are, and whether you are retired; your personal and financial health; and the list goes on.
It was 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. I had just finished drinking a cappuccino with a friend at a local café. Now, I was going to meet a client and spend about an hour getting them set up in their vacation rental. Then I would go back to my home office to spend another 30 minutes or so answering emails.
The couple explored Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and Nicaragua. As their trips were part of a search for a new home, it made sense to stay awhile and get beneath the surface of a place. Ellen explains, “Extended stays make sense financially, giving us time between trips to recoup the cost of moving about.” But after three years of having no permanent base, they realized that it was actually this roving retirement lifestyle that suited them.
I’d wanted to visit Ecuador for almost 12 years before I finally set foot there. At the time, I didn’t realize it was going to be my new home. I thought I was just visiting… But when you’ve got a portable income, vacations go on forever. Money wasn’t an issue and I could easily afford to stay in Ecuador. I picked up a new apartment…a weekly cleaning lady…and lots of new friends. I had both the funds and the flexibility to be as social as I wanted. And I settled into a new kind of life in the colonial city of Cuenca—one that I truly, truly love.
I discovered the potential of ecommerce 14 years ago when I started my online maternity store…from my kitchen table. At the time, I was searching for a business that offered me the freedom to work from anywhere and the flexibility I needed to care for my young children after my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I found it in ecommerce. In its first month, my first site brought in $7,000. I was ecstatic. And it grew from there. I turned my online business into a multi-million-dollar business in a short amount of time.
The smell of fresh paint is just one sign things are changing in our Cuenca apartment these days… There’s new furniture. New towels, linens, and dishware. From top to bottom, this place is in the middle of getting a post-wedding makeover as I settle into the married life.
Conventional wisdom says that you have to get the travel bug out of your system early; that once you have children you have to abandon your overseas dreams—or at least shelve them until the kids grow up and leave the nest. But it’s just not true…and an increasing number of American families are proving it. Folks from all over the U.S. are bucking tradition and traveling the world with their kids—for a summer, a year, and longer.
For years, Richard and Amy Griffin ran successful businesses in the southeastern United States. Amy’s focus was interior design, while Richard was a food distributor for restaurants, hotels, and country clubs. Things were going well until the economic downturn hit in 2008. “Charlotte is a banking community and all my customers were pretty much bankers, so they pulled the plug immediately, because they had no clue what was going to happen,” says Amy.
When I first began researching Ecuador as a possible place to live four years ago, I found that the country offered a lot to attract would-be-residents, especially retirees. There is the moderate climate promoted by Ecuador’s tourism board as “Eternal Spring.” There’s the low cost of living that allows many retirees to live comfortably off their social security income. Ecuador is also close to the U.S. (4.5 hour flight to Miami) and the country uses the U.S. dollar.